Arriving rather late in Manama, I was really appreciative of my host Paul for picking me up. Bahrain is a small country, so there was no way he could live too far away, but I’d have had no idea what to do on my own. As I’d come to expect, I was held up a bit in immigration, but soon after that we were arriving at his apartment. Paul had work the next day, so we limited the conversation to two beers and a walking tour of his place. Up on the roof he had a wonderful view of the island and he was able to point out a couple of landmarks. Back down below we decided to turn in, but for whatever reason I was assigned the master bedroom and he the couch. I insisted that it needn’t be so, but wasn’t determined to fight it too hard either.
Easily the nicest bed I had all trip
The next morning we had talks about getting up early for some hotel breakfast, but an unyielding need for sleep made that impossible. As with the day before, going out into the extreme heat required some warming up to. Eventually, it was my hunger and fear of wasting the only day I had that drove me out. I hadn’t put together much of a plan, but after studying a map I could see that the Shaikh Isa National Library and Al Fatah Grand Mosque were nearby and opted for that. I arrived at the library and perused a couple books in Arabic before checking out their ‘America Corner’. Flipping though a dictionary of idioms helped to remind me just why learning English is so difficult. As soon as I realized I was wasting my time I set off for the mosque.
Over at one of the largest mosques in the region, I was given a tour of the facility by a volunteer. He was employed by the Bahraini coast guard but also came here a couple time a week to give tours to foreigners. I came a bit late, but he was willing to stick around after hours, which I really appreciated. The tour covered different aspects of the construction process and where the materials were sourced from – teak from India, carpets from Scotland, marble from Italy and Turkey, and glass globes from France – but the real intellectual gain came from all of the extra questions he encouraged me to ask.
He explained that when both asked in good faith and in the pursuit of knowledge, any question was a legitimate one – even the existence of God was fair game. In that spirit, I asked as many as I could think of about Islam, and he had as many solid answers. I enrolled in a world religions course back in my college days but had long since forgotten all that. Having spent the last two and a half weeks in this Islamic world had me brimming with all sorts of questions as I tried to bring meaning to the absurdities and differences I had observed in the world around me.
One of the most interesting nuggets was his explanation of the dress code. Though I mostly had the women wearing abayas in mind when I asked it, he said that the six-point dress applies both to men and women. One of the rules was that all clothing has to be pure, mostly meaning not stolen, and clean since it would be disrespectful to worship in less than one’s Sunday best. He went on to talk about clothing needing not be elaborate and flashy, since the only purpose of that was to draw attention to oneself. This is important because it is stated explicitly that these people are unable to reach heaven: “And in this way Allah does put a seal on every arrogant disdainful heart.” (40.35) An interesting point was that men and women are unable to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. While I fully understand men being unable to wear a dress, I was a bit surprised to hear that this restriction also extends to both natural silk and gold. Finally, the reasons for the women wearing black are both traditional and functional. On the historical end of things, colored fabrics were more expensive all those years ago, so black and white were all that the laypeople could afford. They maintain these color choices out of tradition. On the functional side though, with everyone being required to wear appropriate clothes that aren’t transparent, a black color shows through much less. This means that a thinner fabric can be used if black rather than white, and this makes it cooler.
The beautiful interior dome, once the largest of its kind.
When talking specifically about the reasons for women wearing the abayas, I thought he made a legitimate point. He explained that by covering the body, people would not only be less drawn to temptation, but also that love would based on one’s inner beauty rather than physical. He confessed that any man would want to see women naked, but that’s a poor foundation on which to found one’s faith as well as society. During this trip, I was asked what I thought of this type of garb. I explained that aside from Saudi Arabia, where Sharia Law rules, choices of dress are merely dictated by social norms and religion rather than requirement. To varying degrees, in each country that I visited on this trip I saw Middle Eastern women in Western clothes. And while there are still some inequalities built into areas of governance and law, I don’t believe dress code to be one of them. Stephanie, the kiwi that I stayed with in Oman works as a teacher and explained that girls hitting puberty were excited to be wearing them.
On a different subject, one of the interesting things he said was that there is no hierarchy within the religion. Were a king to come worship, he would be no different from anyone else as soon as he walked through the teak doors. While praying he could just as well be lined up next to a beggar. Furthermore there are no priests (or elders, deacons, cardinals etc.) and the only visible differentiation is the prayer leader though this can be anyone who knows the prayer, and is simply whoever steps forward at any of the five daily prayers. He argued that they don’t want any person to exist between God and the individual, which seems like a fair point.
Most of this talking took place in the main hall under the massive dome. We were already overtime so we walked back to the entrance where he recommended a documentary about Mecca and Medina, since the mandatory pilgrimage that all Muslims must make there is quite a unique sight. In the end, he gave me a lift home which was much appreciated over the cost of a taxi.
Reunited with my host, we hit the ground running for a bit of sightseeing before the Arabian night. In this whirlwind tour we stopped at a number of interesting places. The first stop was at a camel farm where I was able to get up close and personal with a few camels doomed to the slaughterhouse. As I’m told, the Saudis eat a fair bit of camel meat and a lot of it is prepared here in Bahrain. They were always curious about me and intent on sticking their big faces into mine for further investigation.
At this stop, I was also able to pick and eat some sweet, caramelized dates right off of the palm.
Next, we drove along the King Fahd Causeway that connects Bahrain with Saudi Arabia far enough to catch sight of the shore. It was no spectacular sight per se, but it may be the closest that I ever come to Saudi Arabia. From there, it was off to the Bahrain International Circuit on the southern end of the island. Since the sun had already gone down and there was no race going on, there wasn’t a lot to see. For at least one weekend a year there is a massive F1 race that draws huge amounts of tourism from the region. On the way back from this, we made one final stop at one of the old Portuguese forts. The walls and structure were illuminated to look pretty nice in the dark. Five hundred year old remnants of Portuguese colonization like this were in also Oman, but I hadn’t the time to investigate them.
Finally, we had my first meal of the day, more shwarma and hummus and then stopped by a couple bars for drinks. Bahrain’s laws on alcohol are far more lax than Qatar’s, so bars actually exist. Being connected by the land bridge, there are scads of people who drive over from the ultra strict Saudi Arabia to have their fun. The first bar was called The Warbler and though the interior decor was nice, the feedback laden cover band was so loud and obnoxious that we decided to move on to the next place. This was some cowboy themed place, staffed entirely by Filipinos of course, where we each got a Strongbow cider. Their band was much better and the expat population made it an interesting place. Soon though we moseyed on home, eyeing my early flight in the morning. After some sleep, we left for the airport at a rather unfortunate 7am and then I was back on a plane.
Dinner with my wonderful host Paul.
Bahrain, like Qatar, was treated as a one day country and it worked out to be an adequate amount of time, though another day would have hurt either. My host was amazing and it was again due to this assistance that really allowed me to see all the essentials. My stays in these two countries were short, but they certainly added to my understanding and appreciating the different ‘flavors’ of the Arabian Gulf.
– Bahrain is comprised of about 15% reclaimed land and much of the sand is imported from Saudi Arabia and Oman. This is a weird thing to think about, but I guess this sand is really quite valuable.
– The Arab Spring riots that took place in the country were quelled by the government simply paying locals more money. In these countries, the governments usually pay their native residents some sort of stipend, generally for doing nothing.